Very windy this morning when I wake. I lie in bed listening to the sugar gums toss and turn. For a moment fear rain. Then I hear the “kinda-blue-bird’s” normal sunny day song and I relax. I’m trusting in this sense of place, this sense of sound. Yesterday when we left at dawn amidst big clouds I knew that I did not have to bring a rain jacket. The birds were not signing their rain song. I’m getting a sense of this “sonic landscape” and finding in it a place that makes sense.
It’s a matter of attention. I’ve been putting my attention into listening, reaching out into the landscape with my ears. This is very easy to do at the Old Birrego School and its wide open spaces. I’m here on a residency and this is my topic so what is stopping me?
Normally there would be things in the way. In my kitchen at home the drone of NPR would mask the sound of the outside world, and the refrigerator, yest that heavily laden drone forms a standing wave that fills all the nooks and cranny’s of my listening space with a detuned standing wave. Steady waves do two things. They erase the more subtle quiet sounds by taking over that quiet range of hearing and covering up soft sounds. The second is the drone effect. In the hunter gatherer soundscape we evolved in there are no fixed steady sounds that just drone on and on. The stream, the wind, the waterfall, the rain, the sounds of animals insects and humans all fluctuate over time in response to the time of day, the time of year and all the infinite twists and turns of the weather. The marvelous abilities of human hearing developed to help us perceive our place in this fluctuating world. And there is nothing like the drone of a refrigerator to short circuit these delicate perceptions. Nothing like an air conditioner to shut them out completely and replace them with an unchanging mechanical drone. An artificial stasis.
Here there is none of that so the whole world of listening has been opening to me like a flower. The process feels rich, tasty, like a good meal. The practice of sitting under this gum tree (which some locals call the wind harp) gives me a reference point and let’s me compare the days, the shifts of weather and wind, the changes of pattern in these acoustical perceptions about of the world.
But wait. There is another thing that interferes with the attention needed for listening out into the world. The iPad. This little computer, sweetly designed, no key clatter, steals my attention away from listening completely and brings my circle of hearing down to a small point. In fact it vanishes down the vortex of online possibility. I’m drawn in and then my imagination leaves my body sitting in this chair and my mind is somewhere else. I’m not really here. I’m in hyper-space. But I can shift back out into the world around, and hear the wind tip over a bucket near the kitchen, hear the plastic bottle blow across the yard, hear the sway of gum tree branches high overhead, the approach of a distant grain truck.
But if you are sitting on a huge combine harvesting grain in a forty foot “header” swath sealed in an air-conditioned cab watching a DVD while a satellite drives your rig, then where is your attention going? Then what can you hear? Garth told us yesterday about the need to listen to your machine, know its vibrations to avoid danger, breakdowns, down time, financial loss and even fire. Steve told the story of a low wage laborer taking his hands off the wheel of the giant machine and zoning out in the cab while the satellite robot harvested grain. The next thing he knew he was staring at the sky after the half million dollar rig hit an uncharted tree. The solution (and it’s a good one for the bankers) is to replace our naturally given sense of hearing with a hundred thousand dollars worth of sensors.
Or we could just open the window a crack and listen.